AMARE GEBREMARIAM GEBRE
Dear readers, this article was posted on the websites some years ago, but I think it is more relevant than ever today because some irrelevant and unrealistic suggestions related to official language in Eritrea are being posted these days and this is meant to present the reader an alternative so as to compare and contrast when it comes to language usage and language reality in Eritrea.
The Eritrean entity emerged with the arrival of Italian colonization and Eritrea existed as a nation through out the Italian colonial era, British protectorate, and federal establishment and under occupation with Ethiopia. Eritrea joined the international community as a nation- state in 1991 after the victory of its armed struggle against the occupation by Ethiopia. Although yet not well studied and researched, Eritrea is said to have nine nationalities with their own language in some with dialects, geographical territory in some cases not clear cut to be certain, cultural heritage and to some degree common economic life. Thus, Eritrea is multi-national and multi-cultural nation-state.
LANGUAGE AS NATIONAL IDENTITY FACTOR
It is not unreasonable to suppose that nearly all Eritrean languages are of the Hamitic, Semitic and Negroid origin. Here, our focus is not how language evolved, that no clear scientific models explain how language evolved, but to bring the Eritrean nationalities to a discussion on how to handle language equality in Eritrea. It is universally accepted fact that language is one of the identifying factors of nationalities, ethnic groups and communities. As an identifying factor people struggle to safeguard it as part of their culture and heritage. In approaching language equality, language rights and language politics Eritrean democrats have to thoroughly take into consideration the following points:
Can any effective language policy be developed?
What claims are the nationalities making?What are the goals of the nationalities claim and to what extent can one language take advantage of another’s goals and methods?
Is positive discrimination necessary in order to achieve equality among languages in a nation-state?
How does the cross- border situation affect people’s linguistic rights inside the country and with neighboring states?
What happens when the linguistic situation is uneven in certain nationality, such as the dialect situation and other factors?
How do we deal with written language, oral language, less used language?
In considering the above points in crafting the harmony of languages in Eritrea, democrats have to realize that the only way people can live together is by respecting the right of individuals to choose their own society and define their own nationality.
LANGUAGE AS A MEANS OF COMMUNICATION
Language and language acquisition is as old as mankind itself. Through out history man has learned to use language other than his own native tongue for communication with other language groups and other cultures. With the loss of universal fluency in Latin as a medium of communication across cultures, the value of acquiring communicative competence in other languages was more acutely recognized.
In Eritrea Geez lost its medium of communication across the Habeshas (Semitic origin) and Tigrigna plays the role of Geez in most highland Eritrea. In lowland Eritrea Arabic plays the role as a medium of communication across cultures. Irrespective of how Arabic prevailed in the Eritrean reality, whether it is through religion or through previous invaders, it does solve the problem of medium of communication across our lowland area diverse cultures. A language does not have to be a native tongue or mother language to be recognized as a medium of communication. It has to win the acceptance of the people and the cross-cultural ability to solve the communication problem of one’s country or a nation. English is not a native language of some West African and some Asian countries, but still is the language of medium of communication and so does French. The point here is not of matter of pride or being degraded, but better communication, which leads to better understanding and development.
In most lowland Eritrea and some highland areas children grow up as bilingual. One of the languages they speak is their native tongue while the second one is Arabic. They learn Arabic in their Quran lessens. It is far from truth to say that only Rashaida speak Arabic in Eritrea.
Language pedagogy experts tell us that children can learn three or more languages at the same time with out psychological problem or academic drawback. It is safe to teach Eritrean school age children more than two or three languages, hence increases the level of understanding tolerance and unity in diversity. Educators should be objective and thoughtful when it comes to the language of instruction in the elementary schools.
LANGUAGE AS A POLITICAL TOOL
Most people think that language, and a particular speech is transparent and that it serves to transmit information. This is a belief rather than scientific fact. People have ideological views on the basis of which they formulate a discourse. Language has a history, which has led to the use being charged ones, rather than words being neutral, they serve to introduce a certain vision of the question one addresses.
If politics can be described as the study of “who gets what and who decides,” the idea of language decisions seem tailored to this way of thinking. The study of language planning does not ignore the political implication of what the effects are of language decisions, and it also focuses on who is in the position to make these choices.
Here are some major areas in which language decisions produce some effects.
Language can be used to control participation in power or wealth when it is used as an instrument of access or deprivation as in the colonial era. Also happens when language is forbidden or if it is required for access to employment or licensing or used as official state language by public institutions.
Language can create conflict, in ways such as when favored elements fight to protect their position, in case of border changes, and the deflection of class-based challenges to outside ethnic or national threats. Language is used to help integrate socially and politically in the process of nation building. While social changes require long time, political change can lead to conflict as elites try to enforce their preferences.
Language is used as a tool for education, which can be linked to participation, since those who do not learn will often be excluded. When there is skepticism of programs supporting the use of the mother tongue conflict arises.
The relationship between the political community, exercising its power through the state and linguistic, ethnic or other communities which exist within these political borders might be some times inevitably tense. The notion one race, one language may be only an ideal, but not a reality and Eritrean democrats should be aware of such situations when formulating language policy.
THE ROLE OF OFFICIAL LANGUAGE AND WHY WE SHOULD HAVE THEM
During the history of mankind, there have been several more or less universal languages or lingua- franca, such as Latin in Europe, Arabic etc. The position of universal language has always been gained as a by-product of some sort of invasion, colonialism or conquest as well as imperialism. Usually the language of the conqueror has become the official language of the state and the upper class first and then possibly spread over the society. Eritrea is one of the present day states that had had ample experience of colonial effect. While Arabic might have gained its official status in the Eritrean society through conquest, I am not sure how Tigrigna reached that stage. I did not get any historical record which could lead me to put certain reason how Tigrigna attained the official status. I very much wanted to read the late Dr Alexander Nasty’s book, but could not get it.
With the role of national identity a language plays, the role language plays as a political tool, in mind I very much still say our official languages should be maintained until we as Eritrean society as whole come with convincing reasons that Eritrea can do better with out them. Here are some reasons why I am for official language importance in Eritrea.
Official language of any country, nation or state means the language, which plays as a medium of communication across cultures. No one language in Eritrea has the communicative competence across the whole Eritrean society. It is believed and widely accepted that Tigrigna and Arabic could serve the need. That is why I asked if positive discrimination is necessary to solve the bigger problem.
Almost all countries in the world entertain official language use in one way or another. The only two countries, which do not have monolingual or bilingual official policy, are Switzerland and Belgium. Belgium has two languages in the country and Switzerland has four. The Eritrean reality is far different than these two countries.
Economic development is hard to progress and stride unless Eritreans understand and communicate each other easily and as quickly as possible. Respecting equality of languages is never affected or hindered because of the use of official languages.
I see no effect of conqueror or conquered in the upcoming democratic Eritrea as long as people are aware of it, although it is every thing wrong with dictatorship.
Having said that I would like the Eritrean society pay attention to issues surrounding national, ethnic and cultural diversities as they relate to official language communities. Also programs and strategies must be in place to effectively support the development of other languages in the state. Lastly the official languages should not be there to play the role of melting pot, but to only facilitate communication.
Historians remind us that culture does not develop in a linear order, but grow sporadically. Culture issues are sensitive and volatile. Eritrean democrats should handle it with the due respect it requires.
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